I don’t want to say I told you so, but I did. In my last preview 3 weeks ago, I said that United’s clash with Crystal Palace would be easy enough but then the real challenges begin. I then wrote a piece looking more closely at the unbeaten start to the season for both Manchester clubs and suggested that the results were a possibly a papering over of the cracks rather than a true reflection on United’s performances.
It has been coming
The weekend’s defeat has been coming for some time, probably all the way back to the Southampton game, where an inspired David De Gea and resolute defending were the only reasons for the 3 points on that day. The pace, fluidity and attacking football that was on show earlier in the season has gradually been evaporating week on week, probably reaching its peak in the Liverpool game. Jose Mourinho has been attacked in the media for that performance alone, but he seems to have forgotten to tell the team that they can stop playing that way now. I did have sympathy for him for the Liverpool result to a certain extent, as trying to be too open at Anfield could be suicide for any club, but unfortunately for him, the Spurs demolition of Liverpool last week put even further emphasis on the United approach against what has to be one of the worst defensive units in the league. The Benfica result masked what was yet another appalling performance from most and then the Huddersfield defeat was the result of the past 4 or 5 weeks. There are some worrying signs leading into what is a very difficult period, where United face the other 6 clubs that make up the top 7 league positions in the next 7 weeks. Injuries are beginning to mount up once more, with Phil Jones the next one on the injury table and a doubt for Saturday, the left back position is still a problem, Ander Herrera seems to have lost the confidence he took from last season and Romelu Lukaku’s goals are gradually drying up.
However, the Huddersfield defeat could actually be a blessing in disguise. If United would have lost to Liverpool or even picked up their first league defeat in the coming weeks against their closest rivals, it would be easy to put it down to simply a defeat to one of the top 6. That is not possible here, United should not be losing to Huddersfield, in fact I would argue that United’s second string should not be losing to Huddersfield and I do not mean any disrespect to them, but they are financially not in the same world. There is nowhere to hide with this defeat and they hopefully will now get the kick up the backside that they have needed for the past month. Why Mourinho has not got a performance out of them is another story, for another day, but with Spurs up this weekend, United have no choice but to return to their form of the first few weeks, or they will be blown away by a Spurs side in a real high following their Real Madrid result and last weekend. Mourinho will have to look closely at how he starts getting to supply back to Lukaku, as without supply he looks like a completely different player, more of a £9 million striker than £90 million. He rested Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the weekend following some very average performances but he needs him back to his best and soon as he was the creative spark over those opening games. This could be a defining game of the season, if they lose, United are likely to be 8 points adrift and the wheels could seriously come off. I don’t like saying this, but I could seriously see a scenario in the coming weeks, where Mourinho is under pressure to keep his job unless he seriously gets his team firing once more.
The other 4 teams to make up the top 6 all play on Saturday, with Arsenal and Liverpool facing, what looks to be easy home games against, Swansea and Huddersfield respectively.
Arsenal put in their best performance of the season last week to see off struggling Everton. The fact the Toffees were so poor should not take anything away from how good Arsenal were. Swansea have been seen as Arsenal’s bogey club in recent seasons but I do not see anything but a home win in this one and the Gunners need it that way with some tough fixtures coming up, meaning they can not afford to drop further off the top 4 pace. Alexandre Lacazette looks a terrific purchase but going quietly under the radar so far, letting the other big boys take the plaudits whilst he has been scoring regularly. The return of Alexis Sanchez would be a plus for any side and Mesut Ozil looked somewhere near his best, but will need to put in a performance against a top 6 side before he starts to get rid of any doubters. Arsenal are one of those sides that when playing well, could take points off of anyone and United will hope that this is the case when they face City.
Liverpool were hammered at Wembley last Sunday, but at least 3 of the 4 goals conceded were provided by Liverpool themselves. Jurgen Klopp needs to seriously look at the defensive side of his team and stop making stupid comments about the performances. He claims to be this world class coach but this has been going on ever since his arrival at Anfield so you have to wonder what they practice on a day to day basis in training. The attacking side is there for all to see and on their day can blow anyone away, but with that defence, they have no chance of making the top 4. The Huddersfield game probably comes at a good time, as it gives them a great chance to put 3 points on the board and gain some points on at least 1 of the top 4 with United and Spurs playing each other. I think they win this game pretty handsomely and there will be no repeat of a Huddersfield giant-killing from last weekend.
The league leaders and favourites for the title then travel to West Brom. If this fixture was about 5 weeks ago, I would have said City would be happy with a point as The Hawthorns is always a tough place to play football. But City just look sublime at the moment and I don’t see anyone touching them outside of the top 6. All the talk is about their attacking ability but no one seems to mention their defensive improvements too. This is partly down to teams simply not getting the ball off of them, but has a lot to do with a change in tactics and personnel. You no longer see the crazy passing along the back line that got them into trouble so often last season, instead, they try to get the ball forward to the midfield as quickly as possible, and who can blame them with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva pulling the strings. Any side who can rest an on-fire Gabriel Jesus and bring in one of if not the best strikers in the league, Sergio Aguero, have to be made favourites. I actually fancy City to win the Champions League, but then again I thought they would walk the league this time last season and the wheels well and truly fell off. I really hope that history can repeat itself this season or the rest may as well not bother now. This won’t be another hammering but fancy City to win comfortably and march on.
The late kick off on Saturday then sees Chelsea travel down to the south coast to face Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth. I have no idea how Chelsea won last week, but they did and it was a really important win, in what has been a difficult period for them. I always think Bournemouth are one of those teams that the top sides don’t mind facing as they tend to always play an open style of football that plays right into their hands. This season could be the one where Bournemouth find themselves in a relegation battle as I think they have been figured out and I don’t see how they stop Chelsea scoring enough to get any points at all. The class of Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard will create chances on a regular basis that you expect a striker of Alvaro Morata’s class to gobble up. Put this down as an away banker.
One eye on the post-Koeman Everton
Although there are no games on Sunday that will impact the business end of the league, everyone will have one eye on the Everton performance following the departure of Ronald Koeman. I believe that the squad is simply not where it needs to be at present and the big factor in the club’s downfall is not securing a replacement for Lukaku. This is partly down to Koeman, but he would have identified his targets and the club failed to secure them, so I think they need to take a larger slice of the blame. Koeman seemingly lost faith in himself towards the end, playing a different formation and players each week is a huge indicator that the manager has lost control of his thinking and that showed in the players in the last few weeks. They had no idea what they were doing and a new manager may at least bring a new energy to the side even if the personnel remains the same until January, but they should be good enough to pick up more results than they have. Going to Leicester is not an ideal league opener for David Unsworth, but if he can get some positive reactions from the League Cup game against Chelsea then they may well go to the KP and pick up 3 points.